Opening Relations with Cuba: An Overdue Change?

January 16, 2015

Two student readings provide a brief history of the embargo of Cuba and its role in Cold War foreign policy and consider different opinions about President Obama's move to normalize relations. 

To The Teacher: 

At the close of 2014, President Obama announced his intention to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and move toward ending the longstanding trade embargo with the country. For the first time in over 50 years, the United States will have an embassy on the Caribbean island country. Diplomatic relations between the two countries had been severed since 1960, shortly after a guerrilla movement led by Fidel Castro succeeded in removing dictator Fulgencio Batista from power. Ultimately, the Cuban government aligned with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and the country's Communist Party has controlled the government since the revolution. However, a half century later, with the Cold War long over and the former Soviet Union's bloc of allied states having dissolved and adopted market economies, many voices in the United States, Cuba, and around the world have criticized the embargo as outdated and counterproductive.
 
This lesson consists of two readings designed to give students a broader understanding of the recent history of United States-Cuba relations and of President Obama's decision to begin normalizing relations. The first reading provides a brief history of the embargo of Cuba and its role in Cold War foreign policy. The second reading examines what the United States' new relationship with Cuba will look like and considers different opinions about the process of normalizing relations. Questions for discussion follow each reading.  

See our lesson Cuba & The U.S. (2008)  for more background on Cuba and its relationship with the U.S.
 



Reading 1: 
Normalized Relations with Cuba: The United States Moves Beyond the Cold War

On December 17, 2014, President Obama announced his intention to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and move toward ending the longstanding trade embargo with the country. For the first time in over 50 years, the United States will have an embassy on the Caribbean island country. Following a year and a half of secret talks between the two governments, a prisoner swap that was brokered with help from Pope Francis, and finally a phone call between President Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro, the leaders of the two countries finally struck an agreement that creates a path to normalized relations.
 
Diplomatic relations between the two countries had been severed since 1961, shortly after a guerrilla movement led by Fidel Castro succeeded in removing dictator Fulgencio Batista from power. Ultimately, the Cuban government aligned with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and the country's Communist Party has controlled the government since the revolution. As reporter Peter Baker noted in a December 17 article in the New York Times, Cuba—just 90 miles off the coast of Florida—has long held a significant place in American foreign policy: 

The historic deal broke an enduring stalemate between two countries divided by just 90 miles of water but oceans of mistrust and hostility dating from the days of Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill and the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cuban missile crisis....
 
From the 18th century, when successive presidents coveted it, Cuba loomed large in the American imagination long before Fidel Castro stormed from the mountains and seized power in 1959.
 
Mr. Castro’s alliance with the Soviet Union made Cuba a geopolitical flash point in a global struggle of ideology and power. President Dwight D. Eisenhower imposed the first trade embargo in 1960 and broke off diplomatic relations in January 1961, just weeks before leaving office and seven months before Mr. Obama was born. Under President John F. Kennedy, the failed Bay of Pigs operation aimed at toppling Mr. Castro in April 1961 and the 13-day showdown over Soviet missiles installed in Cuba the following year cemented its status as a ground zero in the Cold War.
 
But the relationship remained frozen in time long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, a thorn in the side of multiple presidents who waited for Mr. Castro’s demise and experienced false hope when he passed power to his brother, Raúl. Even as the United States built relations with Communist nations like China and Vietnam, Cuba remained one of just a few nations, along with Iran and North Korea, that had no formal ties with Washington.
 

Since the imposition of the embargo, a travel ban has prevented many Cuban-Americans from being able to visit family on the island. An economic blockade has placed restrictions on Cuban-Americans' ability to send money to those relatives still living in Cuba. Moreover, the trade embargo has likely cost US businesses hundreds of millions of dollars in exports. Yet it failed in its stated aim to weaken the Castro government.
 
Now, with the Cold War long over and the former Soviet Union's bloc of allied states having dissolved, many voices around the world have criticized the embargo as outdated and counterproductive. As author Barry Ritholtz argued out in a September 15, 2014 article for Bloomberg.com:

U.S. policies toward Cuba are anachronistic and perplexing. The embargo is a Cold War relic that has long ago stopped serving its intended purpose. It was adopted after the now-defunct Soviet Union tried to establish nuclear bases on the island, bringing the two superpowers to the verge of nuclear war.
 
But what purpose does the embargo serve today? A half-century later, we have to wonder why it continues. A humanitarian crisis grips the island. You might not read about it in U.S., but overseas media reports on it regularly. The Guardian last week reported that, "US economic sanctions against Cuba have cost the island nation $3.9bn in foreign trade over the past year, helping to raise the overall estimate of economic damage to $116.8bn over the past 55 years, Cuba said on Tuesday." 

Ritzholtz further observes that the US embargo has been condemned by countries throughout the world:

The United Nations... has urged an end to the U.S. embargo and other trade sanctions against Cuba’s Communist government. A resolution gets passed every year -- as it has for the past 22 years -- with overwhelming support. Last year the vote was 188 to 2, with only the U.S. and Israel voting against the resolution.

Although significant differences remain between the Cuban and the United States' governments, a thawing in relations represents a move beyond the Cold War past of tension and hostility.
 
 
For Discussion:
 

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. When was the embargo with Cuba first imposed? What was the reason for severing diplomatic relations?
  3. Based on the reading or on your own knowledge, do you think that the embargo served a useful purpose?
  4. Business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce favor normalizing relations with Cuba. Why do you think they might take this stance?

 



 
Reading 2:
A New Relationship with Cuba: What Does it Mean? 

Officials in both the United States and Cuba have been quick to note that the establishment of normal relations does not mean the two countries have worked out their fundamental social, economic, and political differences. Nevertheless, the policy changes that President Obama is pursuing will have a significant impact on Cuban-American citizens.
 
In a December 17, 2014 report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank, analyst Carl Meachem detailed some of the changes the new policy will bring about. Meachem wrote:

In his speech, President Obama explained the various elements that comprise his new approach to relations with Cuba—an approach that can be characterized as a movement from isolation to engagement. Those elements include: 

  • Establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since 1961;
  • Adjusting existing regulations in order to "more effectively empower the Cuban people" through people-to-people contact, support for Cuban civil society, and furthering the free flow of information;
  • Facilitating the expansion of the 12 existing categories of travel to Cuba already permitted under existing U.S. law;
  • Easing restrictions on remittances to Cuba—both raising quarterly remittance limits and eliminating the need for specific licensing;
  • Authorizing expanding commercial opportunities—both exports and imports—in limited sectors, with the goal of empowering the "nascent Cuban private sector";
  • Facilitating authorized transactions between the two countries to improve the speed, efficiency, and oversight of authorized payments between the two countries;
  • Initiating new efforts to increase Cubans’ access to communications through the authorized sale of certain consumer communications equipment and support for the necessary infrastructure development in Cuba;
  • Updating the application of U.S. sanctions on Cuba in third countries;
  • Working to resolve the unresolved maritime boundary in the Gulf of Mexico through the initiation of a trilateral dialogue among Cuba, Mexico, and the United States;
  • Reviewing Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism (a designation held since 1982) through the U.S. Department of State—a key factor in further reforming U.S. policies; and,
  • Addressing Cuba’s participation in the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama through President Obama’s attendance and his prioritization of democracy and human rights as key themes of the Summit. 

The initial reaction to Obama's announcement has been largely positive. Polls show that the majority of Cuban-Americans favor normal relations with Cuba. Some Republican-oriented groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have also said they support the move. However, some Republicans have voiced their disagreement with the new policy. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida—himself a Cuban-American—argues that normalizing relations with Cuba would be an unacceptable concession to an anti-democratic regime and has vowed to oppose the move. 
 
"It’s part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants that this administration has established," Rubio said on Fox News. "This notion that somehow being able to travel more to Cuba, to sell more consumer products, the idea that’s going to lead to some democratic opening is absurd," Rubio said. "But it’s par for the course with this administration constantly giving away unilateral concessions ... in exchange for nothing."
  
On the other hand, those who favor normalization argue that the embargo has done nothing but punish ordinary Cuban people—including those who might be pushing for greater democracy in their own country. Journalist Joe Conason argues in a December 19, 2014 column for Alternet, that there is little justification for why the United States treats Cuba differently than other countries with which it may have disagreements: 

Anyone who has visited the island knows that the Cubans wish nothing more than to see the embargo lifted because they know it has done nothing to advance their liberty or prosperity — just the opposite....
 
Opponents of change have also failed to justify why we’ve treated Cuba so differently than we treat other — and, in various respects, worse — authoritarian regimes with which we maintain not only vigorous diplomatic relations but massive trading partnerships and even military cooperation. The conduct of those governments is arguably more repressive in important ways; there is, for instance, less religious freedom in China and Saudi Arabia than Pope Francis found in Cuba.

 
Long before President Obama announced his change in policy, critics of the longstanding US policy toward Cuba argued that ending the embargo would be the best way of preserving the gains that the Cuban people have made since their revolution (including the virtual elimination of adult illiteracy and the creation of an impressive system of universal health care for all citizens) while at the same time encouraging Cubans who are advocating for more political freedoms. In July 2013, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel argued in the Washington Post:  

During more than 50 years corrupted by covert actions, economic sabotage, travel bans and unending embargo, the United States managed to make Castro and Cuba an international symbol of proud independence. Intent on isolating Cuba, Washington has succeeded only in isolating itself in its own hemisphere. Intent on displacing Fidel Castro, the U.S. enmity only added to his nationalist credentials.
 
A recent visit reveals a Cuba that is already beginning a new, post-Castro era. That only highlights the inanity of the continuing U.S. embargo, a cruel relic of a Cold War era that is long gone.
 
Cuba is beginning a new experiment, driven by necessity, of trying to build its own version of market socialism in one country. Just as populist movements in the hemisphere looked to Castro and Cuba for inspiration, now Cuba is learning from its allies as it cautiously seeks to open up its economy. A former minister of the economy spoke of how Cuba is committed to fostering private coops and businesses, and is beginning a push to make more state enterprises make their own way....
 
Cuba’s official media remains sclerotic, though there are spirited debates in a few online outlets. But the government appears to understand that the explosion of social media will transform  communications and politics, and however tentatively, realizes it has little choice but to change if it is to engage a younger generation.
 
It is long past time for the United States to end the embargo and influence Cuba, rather than threaten it. Ironically, as a result of a new Cuban migration law lifting more than 50 years of restrictions on the ability of its citizens to travel freely abroad, taking effect this year, Cubans are now freer to travel to the United States than Americans are to Cuba.
 

Because fully ending the embargo will require approval in Congress, opposition from lawmakers such as Senator Rubio may prevent some changes in US foreign policy toward Cuba. Nevertheless, White House action has inaugurated what is undoubtedly a new era in relations between the two countries.
 
 
For Discussion: 

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. What are some of the changes in US policy toward Cuba that President Obama has indicated that he will implement?
  3. Why do officials such as Senator Marco Rubio oppose President Obama's actions?
  4. Critics of US foreign policy have long argued that the embargo with Cuba is counterproductive. What is the rationale for their argument? Do you agree or disagree?